Sommelier Roundtable: Wine Surprises and Discoveries in Unusual Times

Whether they’re combing through home cellars while shutdowns linger or testing out new offerings at their recently reopened restaurants, here’s what 7 wine pros are, unexpectedly, loving now

Sommelier Roundtable: Wine Surprises and Discoveries in Unusual Times
It's hard to meet new people right now, but somms have been able to make new acquaintances nonetheless. (Omar Marques/Getty Images)
Aug 7, 2020

Most wine lovers relish a surprise. An unfamiliar region or style that reminds them of a favorite wine (or becomes one itself), a humble bottle that grew impressive with age or, especially, an affordable pour that tastes like something much more rarefied—these are the discoveries that keep wine exciting.

Few appreciate such happy discoveries more than the somms who want to share them, and the past few months have presented some opportunities for ferreting them out. We asked seven wine pros at Wine Spectator Restaurant Award winners what unexpected bottles they’ve found themselves drinking while sheltering at home, or they've found their customers ordering in the early days of reopening. Here's what they said, from sparkling Portuguese rosé to Chenin Blanc in small-town Texas. (Plus, a few disappointments.)

Wine Spectator: Have you made any surprising or rewarding new discoveries in drinks during your stay-at-home time (or reopening)?

Swati Bose, co-owner and wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Flight Wine Bar in Washington, D.C.

What has been fun during quarantine is that we have had the time to go into our cellar and pull out some of our older wines, and taste them to see how they are holding up. Then we decide whether to keep them on the menu or take them off. We discovered that the 2009 Heinrich Leithaberg Blaufränkisch is still delicious. In fact, a few days later we had some industry guests visit from Philadelphia, and they ordered a bottle to-go.

On the flip side, one of our half-bottle [selections] of Sancerre from 2016 did not hold up. The wine lost its liveliness, though it was not flawed, so we just gave those to the kitchen for cooking. However, the half-bottles of Graville-Lacoste Graves 2013 are still tasting great. And it reminded us that these half-bottles of Bordeaux blanc are perfect for patio drinking!

Swati Bose and Kabir Amir, owners of Flight Wine Bar in Washington, D.C.
Swati Bose (left), with husband and co-owner of Flight Wine Bar in Washington, D.C., Kabir Amir. At home, they’ve been opening bottles while grilling whenever they can this year. (Scott Suchman)

Richard Hanauer, wine director for Chicago-based RPM Restaurants, including two locations of Best of Award of Excellence winner RPM Italian, RPM Steak and new 2020 winner RPM Seafood

At home we put emphasis on our nightly dinners so that we had something to look forward to every day. We often opened several supplier samples on a nightly basis as an opportunity, frankly, to go through them as promised. The bottle that shocked me the most was a Jamet Côtes du Rhône 2016. While expecting nothing but Rhônish masterpieces from this house, I could not believe the quality and value of wine in a CdR. The nose especially had all the hallmarks of Northern Rhône Syrah while being approachable in its youth, but still so complex. Although not a classic CdR, as it comes from the North and is based on Syrah, not Grenache, for the price I still think about the complexity and how astounded we were at the table after that meal.

Peter Carillo, wine director at new 2020 Best of Award of Excellence winner Angler in Los Angeles

One of the (many) gaps in my wine knowledge that I've had a bit more time to address lately is Australia. I've been working my way through the principal regions, but I have to say that I keep returning to Margaret River in Australia's southwest, and in particular the wines of Vasse Felix. Their Chardonnays just blow me away—bright, lively, minerally, textured. Think Chablis crossed with Puligny-Montrachet. The Cabernet Sauvignon is spectacular as well, but it's the whites that are making it to my table time and again.

Do yourself a favor: If you don't own a sous vide—shame on you—go get one, right now, take your favorite vegetables and toss them in a bag with olive oil and seasonings, cook at very low heat for hours, and leave them in the bag overnight in the refrigerator. Next day, get your barbecue ripping hot and grill them until nicely browned. Some crunchy ciabatta, a bottle of Vasse Felix Chardonnay, perfect. A hammock wouldn't hurt.

Anthony Wesley, wine director at Award of Excellence winner McNinch House Restaurant in Charlotte, N.C.

In March, when the stay-at-home ruling went into effect, it was Spring Break for me and my colleagues, making toasts over Zoom, opening up our private stashes and having a ball; then came April, reality checked in and we had to slow down. It was fun while it lasted.

I discovered quite a few wonderful wines in this pandemic times but there were wines that stuck with me. Finimondo from Cantine Carlo Pellegrino, a Nero D'Avola from Sicily: rich, soft in tannins with some profusion of spices, reminiscent of a Paso Zinfandel. Great with beef, veal, and, surprisingly, duck. For the Conundrum white lovers, you'll have to experience Evolution Lucky 9 White from Sokol Blosser in the Willamette Valley. This lush, aromatic, tropical blend of nine (yes nine) grapes is a perfect winner with your favorite dish—great versatility in pairing.

Parind Vora, wine director, chef and owner of new 2020 Award of Excellence winner Lockhart Bistro in Lockhart, Texas

By far, [the most noticeable surprise] is the fact that people will splurge now when they go out. More than ever, our client experience has to be memorable; otherwise, it’s not worth the headache. So the people that do come in, we go that extra mile. Now you can talk them into $150, $200, $250 wines. Not for the raise in price necessarily, but for them to experience something that they wouldn’t otherwise. Out here, we’re not going to have a wine on the list if it doesn’t punch above its weight. So that’s what has happened here, is people are willing to drink more exclusive wine.

Last week I sold a bottle of ‘94 Domaine des Baumard, the Quarts de Chaume. And that was something that I don’t think—well, that’s a $100 Chenin Blanc, you know? I mean, this is Lockhart, Texas. [laughs] So we were able to talk them into it because they’re spending more, but they know it’s going to be better than that $30 Moscato.

One thing that surprised me is we sold one of my three bottles of [Álvaro Palacios] L’Ermita, the ‘09. And I mean, that’s pricey, that’s four figures. And people were just blown away. It was a table of four; they came in, and they asked, can you make a main course that’s like three different dishes but it’s the same protein? They wanted beef, so I did one Asian-style beef, almost like a stir-fry. The other one I poached in olive oil so it was kind of like sous-vide. And the third one I did was just grilled, charred only on one side, sliced real thin, almost like a carpaccio. And that’s what they had with that wine.

Winn Roberton, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Bourbon Steak in Washington, D.C.

As, I hope, for most people, bubbles got me through much of quarantine.

  • Gramona Cava: Probably the most serious Cava I've encountered. They are one of a number of Cava producers that are actually embracing the new Corpinnat [designation], focused on the highest-end sparkling wines made in Spain. My go-to bottling is the Imperial, made from a solera system and then aged for five years, which really brings out the toasted and creamy hazelnut flavors rarely found in an easily affordable sparkling wine.
  • Fiorini Terre al Sole Lambrusco: One of the most misunderstood wines there is. I like my Lambrusco dry to bone dry. This was a go-to along with another quarantine tradition, Fajita Friday.
  • Filipa Pato sparkling Baga: One notable in-quarantine discovery. One of the best grapes most people haven't heard of, Baga is the star of central Portugal. Filipa's father Luís is largely known as the master of Baga, making rustic, tannin-driven wines that need plenty of age. More recently, he and his daughter have been making beautiful rosés and a very interesting, slightly vinous sparkling wine that is an awesome aperitif or picnic wine.

Kenneth Howell, beverage manager at Best of Award of Excellence winner Majordōmo in Los Angeles

Since an evening at a cocktail bar isn’t an option, we’ve been batching drinks at home for a quick Negroni or Manhattan after work, without any fuss. They may or may not have made it into a Thermos for an evening walk ...

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